Is This a Miracle? Superstitious Japanese!

We Japanese are superstitious people.

Regardless of our everyday high tech life, many of us still follow our traditional ways and beliefs, which I guess is one of the reasons why many people are still drawn to my country of birth.

One of the superstitions that we have is that it is good luck when a tea stem stands up in your green tea.

Deep down, we know that it is not scientifically sound to assume that a piece of stem would affect our future, but many do get overly excited whenever this phenomenon occurs to us.

If you live in Japan long enough, you will eventually hear the following phrase:

見てみて!茶柱が立ってる!(みてみて!ちゃばしらがたってる!)

“Look, look! A tea stem is standing up! (literally means “a pillar of tea is standing up”)

With this in mind, I just witnessed a miracle.

I like to burn incense when I work to get into the zone, and, lo and behold, the following sight interrupted my work!

I screamed with joy.

うおっ!線香立ってる!(せんこうたってる!)

OMG, incense is standing up!

This, my wise readers, is a phrase that you will probably never hear or use for the rest of your life.

This is not a well-timed picture. It kept standing up like this for good few minutes!

A miraculous day is waiting for me and hopefully for you, too!

Who Invented the Legless Japanese Ghosts?

One of the rakugo stories that I’ve always wanted to listen to is called “The Ghost of Ōkyo” (応挙の幽霊).

In this story, an antique art dealer came across a picture scroll by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), a famous realist painter from the Edo period (1603-1867), and sold it to one of his clients for 10 Ryo.

The client left 1 Ryo for the bond and went home to pay the remaining amount the following morning.

That night a beautiful ghost came out of the scroll, and she thanked the dealer for offering her sake and chanting a Buddhist sutra for her.

They enjoyed sake together, and the ghost even sang some dodoitsu poetry for him.

The morning arrived, but the ghost was still asleep, being exhausted from the previous night.

The client wondered why the scroll wasn’t delivered and asked the dealer.

The dealer answered, “I’d like to let her sleep a bit longer, sir.”

Now…

This is one of those stories that I probably wouldn’t perform myself as a lot could get lost in translation.

But what really fascinates me is that it is said Ōkyo invented the legless Japanese ghosts.

As you may know, it is traditionally believed in Japan that ghosts do not have legs.

That is why ghost characters in Japanese manga and anime are usually legless.

It is a widely accepted theory that Ōkyo was the one who was responsible for inventing the convention of legless ghosts.

If this is true, it is relatively a modern invention that is less than 300 years old.

On the left is The Ghost of Oyuki by Ōkyo.

Picture Attributions

The Ghost of Oyuki: Maruyama Ōkyo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yuurei: Brigham Young University, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Weird Professions of Edo No.2: Ear Wax Remover

I have a confession.

I once was an ear cleaning addict until my specialist ear nurse rather strongly told me to stop using the traditional Japanese ear pick.

It is usually made of bamboo, and it often has a “fluff” made of bird feather on one end.

Traditional Japanese Ear Pick

If you are into Japanese film, manga, and anime, you might have seen that a couple cleaning each other’s ears (usually a man laying his head on a woman’s lap, getting his ears cleaned by the woman).

Somehow ear cleaning is considered an intimate act, even romantic, in Japanese culture.

By the way, my western wife doesn’t think it’s romantic and just tells me to stop using it, but this is another story.

Ear-cleaning being such an important part of Japanese life (slightly exaggerated), some people even made a full-time living from cleaning people’s ears during the Edo period (1603-1867).

In fact, the profession of Ear Wax Remover (耳垢取) is recorded in Kotto Shu (骨董集) by Samuru Iwai (岩瀬醒), which was published in 1814/ 1815.

Japanese life in Edo seems to have been much more laidback than how it is now.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Photo Attributions

Ear Pick: Mochi, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Kotto Shu: National Diet Library Digital Collection

Weird Professions of Edo No.1: Cat’s Flea Remover

I recently heard of a Japanese movie called “Flea Remover Samurai” (のみとり侍), which was released in 2018.

It is based on a short novel by Shigeo Komatsu by the same title (the original title uses a kanji for the word flea: とり侍).

The premise of this story is that the main character, who once was an elite samurai, resorts to the side hustle of removing fleas from cats to supplement his income.

But here’s a twist.

His real business is a male courtesan.

I’d love to watch the movie sometime, but did you know that the profession of flea remover (蚤取り屋) actually existed during the Edo period (1603-1867)?

As far as I know, they were not covert courtesans, though!

This strange occupation is sometimes introduced in rakugo, usually in a makura or a free talk before commencing rakugo.

According to what I have heard in rakugo, they wrapped up a flea-infested cat with wolf’s fur, which was warmer and more comfortable than the cat’s, so that the fleas abandoned the cat for the wolf’s fur.

It is said that they made enough money to make a full-time living.

What are some of the strange professions from your country? Please let me know in the comment section below. I am very keen to learn about them!!!

Japanese Concepts of “Hare” and “Ke”

Onbashira Festival

If you have ever visited Japan, you probably know that we are quite mellow people.

Those dead quiet trains make us look well-behaved and civilised.

Yet, when it comes to festivities, we go overboard and know how to celebrate (not in the Latin American, Spanish, or Italian ways, but hey…).

Celebrations have kept Japanese civilisation going since time immemorial.

You may have heard of a festival called Onbashira Festival (御柱祭) where 16 fir trees (16-19 metre-long each) are pulled downhill by a group of people.

Every year, many people get injured and sometimes even die… but they still keep going regardless as festivals are crucial in Japanese life.

According to Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), a renowned scholar and folklorist, all our activities can be divided into two categories: Ke (け; 褻) and Hare (はれ; 晴れ; 霽れ).

Ke refers to the ordinary.

Things or activities that you do every day like family life, work, school, etc.

Hare, on the other hand, refers to things and activities that are out of the ordinary such as festivals and rituals like wedding, coming of age, and Shichi-Go-San.

It is the balance between these two kinds of activities that have maintained Japanese life.

Even though many people assume that ke is from the word kegare (impurities), but this is not the case.

The concept of kegare was only added in the 1970’s to this hare-and-ke dichotomy.

Working hard on the ordinary (ke) and looking forward to the out-of-the-ordinary (hare) is how Japanese have coped with our rather stressful social life.

Photo Credit

Si-take. at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reference

Onbashira

ハレとケ

Book Review: Talking About Rakugo

I am embarrassed.

I had completely underestimated the newly published book, “Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling”.

When I was interviewed by the author, Kristine Ohkubo, for the book, I thought to myself in a fake British upper-class accent:

“Oh, it’s so lovely she’s writing a book for rakugo newbies.” (* I don’t think the aristocrats use the word “newbies”… or “rakugo”.)

Oh my gush, I was so, so, so wrong!

This book is a gem full of rakugo knowledge. It is a one-stop-shop for rakugo newbies and connoisseurs alike!

The book opens with how rakugo began its journey and evolved into its present format. It introduces most of the legendary masters including Kokontei Shinsho V, Sanyutei Ensho VI, and Tatekawa Danshi V.

The truly unique feature of this book is that it covers such subjects as female rakugo performers, rakugo in other languages, and even Sign Language Rakugo!

But its biggest feature is that it includes 16 of my master’s rakugo scripts in English!!!

Now… let me sidetrack for a minute.

The author, Kristine Ohkubo, somehow managed to keep it a surprise for me that my master was actually her co-author until very recently!!!

So did my master Eiraku…

Now I know these two people are excellent at keeping secrets… something I had not known…

Getting back to the rakugo scripts, the following stories are included in this book, with which you can enjoy and/ or perform yourself:

  • Another Bottle of Sake (Kawarime)
  • The Summer Burglar (Natsu Doro)
  • Browsing in the Pleasure Quarter (Nikai Zomeki)
  • Faceless Ghost (Nopperabo)
  • The Father and Son Who Love Drinking (Oyako Zake)
  • Foxes in Oji (Oji no Kitsune)
  • Gonbei and the Racoon Dog (Gonbei Danuki)
  • Gonsuke’s Lantern (Gonsuke Jochin)
  • Okiku’s Dishes (Okiku no Sara)
  • Peach Boy (Momotaro)
  • Test Sake (Tameshi Zake)
  • Time Noodles (Toki Soba)
  • King Lear (Lear Oh)
  • The Replacement of Enma (Enma no Irekawari)
  • Scary Hamburgers (Hanbaga Kowai)
  • Japan Milk Corporation (Nihon Miruku Kosha)

Did I mention that the book also includes extensive interviews with English Rakugo superstars like Katsura Sunshine, Tatekawa Shinoharu, and my master Kanariya Eiraku?

There is an interview of a lovely New Zealand-based performer called Kanariya Eishi, too.

Without any bias, I can confidently say that this is probably the best rakugo book that has ever been written in the English language.

I sincerely hope that this book will spread rakugo to the end of the world!

This is the beginning of a new chapter in English Rakugo.

You can purchase the book from here.